Gladiator is a movie I’ve wanted to look at for this blog for a while, part of the reason I wanted to do a Ridley Scott month. It was hard to fit it into any one particular category though. Although it’s an epic historical drama film, it’s only loosely based on real events. For that kind of theme month, I’d rather focus on more historically accurate movies. As for Hollywood Epics, it’s more interesting to look at older movies, back when epics were more common. So a theme month focusing on a particular director seemed like the right choice.
Gladiator, released in 2000, is Scott’s most award winning movie to date. It easily earned over $460 million on a $103 million budget, making it the second highest earning movie of the year, behind Mission Impossible 2. The movie also earned five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, and Russell Crow won the Best Actor award. It received 7 other nominations, Scott getting one of those for Best Director, Joaquin Phoenix (title character in Joker) for Best Supporting Actor, and Hans Zimmer (Lion King, Dark Knight trilogy) for Best Original Score. The movie earned numerous other awards and nominations, from BAFTA, the Golden Globes, and the Critics’ Choice Awards.
Since its release, Gladiator has also been credited with reinventing the sword-and-sandal subgenre and rekindling interest in movies and TV shows about ancient Greece and Rome, including the Rome TV series, Troy, Alexander, 300. Other historical movies that released since Gladiator include The Last Samurai, The Alamo, King Arthur, and of course Scott’s own movie, Kingdom of Heaven (which I intend to look at later this month). Also, last year, Scott officially announced that writing has begun for a sequel to Gladiator. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but apparently he’s planning on developing it after he finishes his upcoming Napoleon biopic.
Gladiator began when writer David Franzoni pitched the idea to DreamWorks. After DreamWorks accepted his pitch, along with a three-picture deal, he began writing the first draft. His previous movie, Amistad (which he worked with Steven Spielberg on) helped establish DreamWorks as a film company. Gladiator was inspired by the 1958 novel Those About to Die. He based the main story on the biography of Commodus from the ancient Roman Historia Augusta collection of biographies. According to multiple historic sources, Emperor Commodus was strangled to death by a wrestler by the name of Narcissus.
Scott happily accepted the project after he was approached by film producers Walter F. Parkes and Douglas Wick. They also showed him a copy of the 1872 painting Pollice Verso (Thumbs Down), which inspired the thumbs up or down that Emperor Commodus often uses in the film. Scott felt that the original script was a bit too “on the nose”, and hired John Logan to rewrite it. Among the changes, he made the choice to kill off Maximus’s family to increase his motivations. Crowe felt eager for the role when it was pitched to him.
“They said, ‘It’s a 100 million-dollar film. You’re being directed by Ridley Scott. You play a Roman General’. I’ve always been a big fan of Ridley’s.”
With two weeks to go before filming, several actors complained about problems with the script. William Nicholson joined the team to help with character adjustments. He made Maximus a more sensitive character, reworked the friendship with Juba (a co-gladiator slave played by Djimon Hounsou, and added details about the afterlife. Crowe specifically caused difficulty during filming. According to DreamWorks executives, Crowe tried to rewrite the script on the spot.
“You know the big line in the trailer, ‘In this life or the next, I will have my vengeance’? At first he absolutely refused to say it.”
Crowe talked about the issue in interviews, claiming that it was “probably the first time that I’ve been in a situation where the script wasn’t a complete done deal.”
Some of the elements Crowe added work quite well. Maximus has a habit of picking up dirt and rubbing it in his hands. It references his attachment and affection to his former life as a farmer. He even wrote the line where he talks about how the soil of his farm is “black like my wife’s hair.” He based this character trait on his own homesickness for his own farm.
While preparing to film the movie, Scott spent several months working on storyboards. He also joined production members scouting various locations within the Roman Empire before its collapse. Some of these locations included Italy, France, North Africa, and England. Most of the filming took place at Fort Ricasoli in Malta, a small island country south of Italy. Near the fort, they built a replica of the Colosseum at its prime, about 1 third of the size, mostly from plaster and plywood. The arena itself was fully sized, although the higher seats were digitally added. The replica took 3 months to build, and cost an estimated $1 million on its own. Other film locations include Ouarzazate, Morocco, and Bourne Woods in Surrey, England. When Scott learned that the Forestry Commission planned to remove a section of the forest, he persuaded them to allow a battle scene to be shot there, where they’d burn it down during filming.
The British post-production company, The Mill, handled most of the CGI effects. They added in the tigers to the fight where Maximus fights a retried gladiator champion using blue screens (they were real tigers). They used 2000 real actors to create crowds of 35,000 virtual actors that had to look real. One unexpected post-production job was to create a digital body double for Oliver Reed, after he died of a heart attack while filming in Malta before he finished all of his scenes. They used a mix of outtakes, a computer generated mask of his face and body doubles to finish his scenes. It cost an estimated $3.2 million for two additional minutes of footage. On this, Visual Effects Supervisor John Nelson said,
“What we did was small compared to our other tasks on the film. What Oliver did was much greater. He gave an inspiring, moving performance. All we did was help him finish it.”
The film is dedicated to Reed’s memory. On that note, Reed played former gladiator and slave owner Antonius Proximo, who befriends Maximus and becomes a mentor of sorts. The role was originally supposed to go to Richard Harris (Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies), but he ended up playing the old Emperor Marcus Aurelius instead.
Since I’ve already mentioned Crowe as Maximus, Phoenix as Emperor Commodus, Reed as Proximo, Harris as Marcus Aurelius, and Hounsou as Juba, it’s time to round out the rest of the cast. You’ve got Connie Nielson as Lucilla, Maximus’s former lover and the older child of Marcus Aurelius. Derek Jacobi plays Senator Gracchus, the main political opponent to Emperor Commodus. German actor and former competitive bodybuilder Ralf Moeller plays fellow gladiator Hagen. Tomas Arana plays General Quintus, who spends most of the movie being loyal to whoever the emperor or Rome is, but eventually redeems himself after he sees Commodus’s true madness. Last but not least, Spencer Treat Clark plays a young Lucious Verus in his breakout role. Lucious is Lucilla’s son and eventual heir to Rome, who idolizes Maximus, much to Commodus’s annoyance. He’s since made a decent career in TV and film.
Anyway, there’s no reason to beat around the bush. Gladiator is a very good movie. It’s not a very historically accurate one despite looking at several real historic figures, but it’s not meant to be. There are several major plot threads that flow very well together, the main ones being about Maximus’s journey, and how it interacts with Emperor Commodus’s journey. At the start of the movie, Maximus is a very skilled and well-respected general, dealing with Germanic barbarians near modern day Vienna, Austria.
Meanwhile, Commodus is unfit to rule after his elderly father passes on, due to his cowardice, his ambitions overriding any sense of ethics, and his lack of respect for the people and for the philosophy that helped lead to the rise of the Roman Empire in the first place. Marcus wants Maximus to succeed him as a regent to restore the republic. Of course, after Commodus hears of this, he murders his father and claims the throne for himself. When Maximus refuses Commodus’s request for loyalty, he is arrested and ordered for execution, and his family is murdered.
After suffering wounds during his escape from his execution, Maximus is captured by slave traders, where he’s sold as a gladiator. He quickly rises to fame through his combat skills and charisma, while Commodus is trying to seize absolute control over Rome, but hosts 150 days of games to distract his citizens from this. The movie becomes a battle for the public’s affection, as Maximus openly defies the emperor in front of the large crowds of the Colosseum.
Not only does the movie feel epic in scope and story, but the characters give the movie a strong emotional core. Maximus is motivated by revenge, but he also longs to meet his family in the afterlife. There’s a duel motivation where he wants to die, but not without killing Commodus first, both for revenge and to save Rome from a tyrant. He’s charismatic as a crowd pleaser and a leader to the other gladiators, but shows a soft and venerable side in the movie’s quieter moments. Crowe can be a monotone actor at times, but here he shows a lot of emotional rang, while selling the stoic general perfectly. He really was cast perfectly for this.
Phoenix sells Commodus well as a spoiled brat, but an intelligent one. He’s clearly bored by the senate’s politics and the people’s struggles, seeing them as beneath him. He only cares about his power, his lust for his older sister, and crushing anyone who stands in his way. But perhaps the most impressive performance in the movie comes from Nielson as Lucia. She plays the role of a woman living in constant fear perfectly. She often looks distant and distracted any time her emperor brother is around, but determined while meeting the senators in private. She allows herself to be venerable around Maximus, but always tries to be strong with her son. The roughest emotional moment in the movie is where she reaches her breaking point – when Commodus confronts her about her plot.
Reed is also brilliant in his final performance. He sells his nostalgia for his gladiator days perfectly, and you completely buy his friendship and respect for Maximus. Meanwhile, Hounsou plays the part of an African tribesman gladiator nicely. He’s probably the calmest character in the movie, dreaming of returning home one day, but he never feels like someone who should be underestimated. His talk with Maximus about the afterlife allows him to show a sense of wonder, which works well for a scene exploring a touch of Greek/Roman mythology. Moller as the gigantic Germanic gladiator is just fun, with a good level of confidence and charisma in his performance.
The action in this movie is just the right level of brutal. It’s R-rated mostly for its bloody violence, which feels necessary to explore the brutality of gladiatorial combat. The battle at the start of the movie shows a decent balance of the different battle tactics between the Roman Empire and the barbarians they often fought, showing how the Roman Empire advanced so quickly using coordinated tactics. The gladiator fights filmed in Morocco are quick and raw, while the pure spectacle of the fights in Rome are longer and epic.
Before I close this out, it’s worth exploring some of the real history behind the figures in the movie. Like I said, Gladiator isn’t meant to be historically accurate, so none of these inconsistencies should be considered points against the movie. In real life, Emperor Marcus was not murdered by his son, but instead died from the Antonine Plague, which is believed to be either smallpox or measles, which swept the Roman Empire during his reign. On that note, he actually shared rule of the Empire with Commodus for the last three years of his life, which was a fairly common practice in the Roman Empire. Maximus was not a real person, although he is based on several historic figures, including Narcissus (who killed Commodus), Spartacus (who led a significant slave revolt well after Commodus’s reign) and Macinus (a trusted general and friend of Emperor Marcus). Also, unlike in the movie where Commodus’s death resulted in peace for Rome, in real life it resulted in a bloody power struggle that culminated in the chaotic Year of the Five Emperors.
Also in real life, gladiators would often carry out product endorsements. These actually appeared in early scripts, but Scott had them removed, fearing that audiences would find that hard to believe. There were other historic facts that were actually removed from the movie because they were deemed “too unbelievable” to include. But most of the changes were made in favour of the story, and that’s not a bad thing. That said, at least one historical advisor resigned over these changes.
Gladiator is a brilliant movie, and easily among Ridley Scott’s best. It’s got an epic scope ranging from battling barbarians to spectacles in the Colosseum. It’s an entertaining movie while also exploring the brutal nature of gladiatorial combat and the cruelty of Rome’s worst rulers. Zimmer’s soundtrack is fantastic from start to finish, enhancing the movie’s already epic feel, while still capturing the movie’s emotional core. Lisa Gerrard’s singing during the movie’s more emotional moments enhances that even further, for which she received a Golden Globe. She also sang the more emotional moments of Mission Impossible 2’s soundtrack, so she was involved with the two highest earning movies of the year.
If you haven’t seen Gladiator, but you’re interested in Roman based historic fiction, or historical epics in general, this movie is a must.
Next up, I’ll be looking at Blade Runner, which is often considered the greatest science fiction movie of all-time. I’ll be watching the Final Cut, which is the only version I’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean I won’t at least touch on some of the other edits. Then I’ll wrap this month up with Kingdom of Heaven, a prime example of studio interference ruining a brilliant movie. As of right now, I’m planning April as my “so bad it’s good” month, where I look at four hilariously bad movies.